What is Arminian Theology?
Arminian theology takes its name from Jacob Arminius. Arminius lived in the 16th and early 17th centuries. In reaction to sitting under Theodore Beza’s teaching, Arminius formulated a theological system that ran contrary to that of his high-Calvinist teacher and the rest of the reformers.
For starters, Arminius spent a year studying theology in Geneva under Theodore Beza. Now, Beza was John Calvin’s ablest student and successor. While Arminius was a brilliant student, this brilliance did not lead him to embrace all of Beza’s high Calvinism. In order to better understand the roots of Arminianism, it is important to know something about the influence of Dutch Humanism on Arminius. This influence trances back to Desiderius Erasmus. It was this Erasmus who happened to be Luther’s most able opponent from the beginning of the Reformation. He was a humanist in the sense that humanism at that time sought to preserve the dignity and freedom of human beings. Nick Needham writes,
This Erasmian humanism strain in Dutch Protestantism was still very much alive in Arminius’ day; it was sceptical about the value of doctrinal theology beyond the basics of the Apostle’s Creed, focusing instead on practical morality and a spirituality that stresses human freedom and dignity.” [2000 Years of Christ’s Power]
Arminius was influenced greatly by Dick Coornhert, a Dutch Catholic humanist who advocated a concept of human free will that gave it virtual autonomy from divine grace. In addition to this influence, Arminius seems to have also been influenced in the late 1590s by the Roman Catholic theologian, Luis de Molina on human freedom, divine foreknowledge, and sufficient grace. It was Molina who invented the idea of middle knowledge. This was an attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty with human freedom. It reality, it was an attempt at a Christian theodicy that cohered with Dutch Humanism. I will come back to this later.
Arminius’ soteriology, while having many things in common with contemporary Arminianism, differs in some important points. In common with modern views, Arminius denied unconditional election/predestination. For Arminius, God elected to save those whom he foreknew (know in advance) would believe. Arminius denied that their choice to believe was caused by God’s monergistic grace. It was instead a cooperative effort on the part of God and man.
The main difference between Arminius’ theology and contemporary Arminian theology is in how each views the concept of ‘prevenient grace.’ The term prevenient is from the Latin for “going before.” God bestows prevenient grace on men who are thus enabled to respond to the call of the gospel. However, Arminius believed that this prevenient grace accompanies the gospel proclamation at the time of that proclamation. This is far-removed from contemporary Arminianism which believes that prevenient grace is universally distributed at the cross. This introduces a second and more radical difference between Arminius and his contemporary followers in the doctrine of total depravity. Arminius affirmed total depravity along with the reformers. Contemporary Arminians reject the doctrine by way of their belief in universal prevenient grace which essentially reversed the effects of the fall for all men at the cross. This is no small error.
This brings us to the five points of the Remonstrants. I will list an abbreviated version of the five points focusing on the thrust of each point. Before I do, you may be wondering what do I mean by the “five points of the remonstrants?” The remonstrants was a community of mostly Dutch Protestants who supported Jacob Arminius. They took their “protest” to the churches in Holland in order to gain support for their theology. This protest was heard at the Synod of Dordt. The Five Points of Arminianism is as follows:
- Conditional Election: God elects those to salvation who he knows in advance will place their faith and trust in Christ. He determines to inflict punishment on those whom he knows will persist in their unbelief to the end.
- Universal Atonement: Christ died for the sins of all mankind in general and every man in particular.
- Depravity: Because of his natural corruption, man cannot think or do any good thing, so true faith cannot proceed from an act of the human will or his natural faculties.
- Resistible Grace: The divine work of the Holy Spirit heals man’s natural corruption and by this operation of grace man is able to do good works before God. However, this regenerating grace may be resisted and rendered ineffectual by the perverse will of the impenitent sinner.
- Fall from Grace: Believers are furnished with abundant strength and help, sufficient to enable them to triumph over the seductions of Satan and the allurements of sin. However, by the neglect of this help, they may fall from grace, and if they die in such a state, must finally perish.
Contemporary Arminianism (CA) typically affirms (1), (2), (4) and often (5). It rejects any notion of total depravity being equivalent to total inability. Now, the good news is that most Christians, even though they would fall into the CA camp, do not push it to its logical consequences. The bad news is that these Christians are shrinking in number and those who do push CA to its logical consequences is on the rise. This can be attributed to the influence of Dutch Humanism that gained a very strong foothold in Protestantism from almost the beginning and the utter neglect of theological training and equipping that goes on in both the CA and Reformed churches.
Why the Reformation Matters
The reformation, if it was anything, was an emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God. If Christianity is to survive and the gospel is to be proclaimed, it will only happen in a community where God is the final reference point for all human predication and the final standard for what is good, right, and true. The reformers understood very well that this was the God presented in Scripture as the only true God that is. Everything that is, is for the glory of God alone!
The reason the Reformation matters today is because the gospel matters. Without the gospel, there is no Christianity. And without an absolutely sovereign, holy Triune God, there is no gospel. At best there is a moral system that does some earthly good (so to speak) for a while and nothing more.
Scripture reveals that God is omniscient. The prophet Isaiah reveals this about God: “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;” (Isaiah 46:10) Since God declares the end from the beginning, God knows the end from the beginning. God’s knowledge is based on his declaration, his plan. Calvinists call this God’s decree. If it is true that God declares the end from the beginning from ancient times, then it follows that God does not learn anything about future events by looking ahead to see what will happen or what a human off in the distant future will decide. This revelation of God’s knowledge by the prophet serves as a blatant contradiction to Arminianism’s very first point: Conditional Election. This is why Reformed Theology affirms that God’s election to salvation is unconditional. This is to say that it is not conditioned on anything external to God, or God’s plan.
Another critical component of the gospel is the concept of atonement. The Greek word translated atonement in the NT is hilasmos. This word denotes the means by which God forgives. It signifies the means for appeasement that is now necessary due to the incidence of sin in the world. This word appears in the NT 4x in two different forms. It appears in the LXX 6x and is translated from 4 different Hebrew words, and on one occasion it has no equivalent. The Hebrew word that stands out among the others is kuppar. The word appears 102x in the Hebrew Text (BHS). Its range of meaning is: Forgive, appease, cover, pardon, atone for, canceled, expiation. This Hebrew word is rendered exilaskomai in the Greek translation of the IT and it appears 47x in the LXX. To atone for someone is to purify them, to forgive them, to cleanse them from their sin. (Look for my forthcoming article on the idea of potential atonement in the OT.) Christ came to save rather than make salvation possible. Christ came to atone for the sins of the world, instead of potentially atone for the sins of the world. When Jesus died, he accomplished salvation for his people, the sheep whom the Father would give him.
Classic Arminianism affirms total depravity with a small qualification so to speak while Contemporary Arminianism outright denies total depravity and if taken to its logical end, could potentially deny the doctrine of original sin. The Reformers understood that the Scriptures describe the human condition as hopeless apart from God’s divine intervention. If man is to be rescued from wrath, from death, from his bondage to sin, it will be the work of God alone. Scripture affirms that man is unable to do anything whatsoever that pleases God: “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8) The New Testament describes man as unable, helpless, blind, ignorant, bound, and a host of other adjectives that clearly teach that all men, after the cross, remain in a depraved condition. Arminius was at least closer to reformed theology when he invented prevenient grace extended at the time the gospel is issued. His followers, however, have taken several steps backward closer to the old Pelagian heresy and its denial of original sin. The reformation still matters because we are still helpless sinners saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone according to the Scriptures alone.
Because election is unconditional, based on nothing external to God, and because God is sovereign and is never frustrated by the will or natural powers of human beings, and because Christ freely offered himself upon the cross, taking the wrath of the Father in our place, and because our salvation depends only on the work of the Holy Spirit in applying that work, we can rest assured that salvation, once applied, can never be lost. Jacob Arminius never denied the security of the believer. At best, he said that it was a question with which we should continue to grapple. His followers, on the other hand, quickly moved away from Arminius and did reject eternal security. Contemporary Arminians are on both sides of this fence. Some affirm a form of eternal security called once-saved-always-saved. Others deny the idea of eternal security altogether, making the final salvation of each person dependent on that person’s ability to remain faithful to the commands and teachings of Christianity. The reformation matters because it is the only theological scheme that can assure salvation for the believer in accord with the Scriptures and in a way that is coherent with the Christian gospel.
The Consequences of Arminianism
Arminianism opens the door to numerous errors, heterodoxies, and outright heresies. I will close the post by trying to give concise bullets of these errors as best I can.
- Arminianism unwittingly compromises divine omniscience. God never learns. He does not look down through time or look into possible worlds to learn what people would do and then draw up his blueprint or decree. God is all-knowing and his knowledge is based in his decree. He knows because he decreed. When this view of God is taken to its logical end, it concludes with open theism. Open theism is outright heresy.
- Arminianism unwittingly compromises grace and the seriousness of sin by locating the final determination of salvation in man. God is rendered unable to rescue man in and of himself. Ultimately salvation ends up being completely in the hands of each individual person. Taken to its logical end, this would render grace alone unintelligible.
- Arminianism runs the risk of universalism. This amounts to the denial that anyone will suffer eternal punishment because Christ atoned for the sins of the whole world without exception and has reconciled the world to himself. This destroys any need for the gospel, the Christian community, and makes a mockery of all things Christian. Universalism is a pernicious heresy.
- Arminianism places the will of man above the will of God in its synergistic approach to salvation. If it is the case that man can override God’s work to save, then it follows that Christ’s death did not guarantee the salvation of a single human being. Christ did his part and we must do our part. This thinking is anchored in the Dutch Humanism of Erasmus’ day and is reinforced by enlightenment philosophical naturalism. More American Christians confess this version of Christianity than any other. Christians become converts to Christianity in exactly the same fashion as one converts to Islam or any other religion. This version of Christianity has given rise to the consumer model, the seeker model, the emergent model, and as of late, the liberal evangelical model with its socialist and Marxist tendencies. This view ranges from error to serious heresy depending on how consistent one is in this point.
- Finally, Arminianism produces confusion and chaos where assurance is concerned. It leads to legalism in one form and antinomianism on the other. Both of these extremes are heresy. On one hand, some Arminians claim you can make Jesus your Savior without making him your Lord (antinomianism) while on the other hand, some claim your salvation depends entirely on your living a holy life and keeping God’s commandments (legalism).
I do not categorize classic Arminianism as damnable heresy. I do think various components of this theology range from error to serious error. That said, classic Arminianism opens the door to serious error and outright heresy. For that reason, elders and teachers ought to take the error of Arminian theology much more seriously than they do. They certainly should not shy away from teaching the truth about God that Scripture teaches. When you withhold the truth of God taught in Scripture from people, you rob them of God’s blessing. It is the epitome of arrogance for elders and pastors and teachers to think that they can bring people into God’s truth about himself better than God the Holy Spirit can.
Theodicy seems to be one of the core issues in the debate between Arminian and Reformed theology. Here is what I mean. Arminians, influenced by Dutch Humanism as they are, do not like the objections leveled against the God presented by Reformed theology. If salvation does not depend on man, his will, his freedom, then not only does this jeopardize the dignity of human beings, it makes God out to be a monster. If men are saved by grace alone and that salvation is the result of God’s unconditional election, then this takes man of the equation. How is this just? It seems to the Arminian that God is not being fair or just or loving or good in any send of those words if Reformed theology is true.
In the Arminian scheme, God is off the hook because election is based on man’s freedom and on God’s knowledge of what man will decide to do with that freedom. But we must ask in what sense does this get God off the moral hook? I would submit that it does not get God off the hook in any sense at all. You see, the typical Arminian affirms that God knows the future perfectly before he acted to create the world and the humans that occupy it. This means the free will defense is unable to provide a theodicy that solves the fairness question. How is it fair for God to elect some to salvation and others to eternal damnation, asks the Arminian? That kind of God is a moral monster! Well, how is it moral for God to create a world in which there is so much suffering and evil and one in which the overwhelming majority of human beings will end up suffering eternal damnation in the lake of fire? God knew that Adam would eat from that tree before he put it there. Why did he put it there? God knew that creating this world would result in 90% or more of all humanity falling into eternal judgment. Why did he bother to create at all? God knew if he brought women and babies into this world that evil men would abuse, rape, and murder them for their own pleasure. God created anyways! Arminianism does not get God off the moral hook at all. All it does is compromise divine sovereignty, grace, sin while elevating man. Arminianism exchanges the absolute holy, righteous sovereign Triune God of Scripture for one that is less while elevating human dignity and it improves Christian theodicy, not an inch. In fact, it introduces the unavoidable logical conclusion that purposeless evil exists in God’s world.
“also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,” (Ephesians 1:11)